Modern mobility implies more than just human transportation. We tote playthings along with our persons. Depending on your proclivities, those toys can grow so large that you need a pickup truck that's optimized for towing. With rear-wheel drive (or four-wheel drive), powerful engines, rugged suspensions and rigid steel frames, pickups provide the brawn to take, say, a 36-foot Alpenlite RV, with its hardwood floors and fireplace, to a mountain retreat. Or perhaps you need to tow six thoroughbreds in an EquipSpirit horse trailer. Or haul a motor yacht up to Tahoe. Or maybe just bring your children’s all-terrain vehicles to the dunes.
ForbesAutos.com assembled this list of the Top 10 Biggest, Baddest Trucks for Towing from the manufacturers' specifications, along with our own data. Only the first six trucks on our list can haul the largest, heaviest loads, and for that they typically need a special fifth wheel or gooseneck-style hitch mounted inside the bed. Each of these 2006 and, in a few cases, 2007 model year trucks has its own strengths and purposes.
Truck experts stress that you should match a truck's capability to the loads you intend to tow. "Many people tend to overestimate what their vehicle can tow," said Mike Satlak, medium-duty market manager at International Truck. "The engine's torque rating is one of the best indicators in measuring the towing capacity of a truck.”
Pay attention to transmission gearing and the final-drive ratio, too, says Robert Krouse, trailering design engineer for General Motors' full-size trucks. They should allow the engine to pull effectively at midrange engine speeds of about 2,000 to 3,000 rpm. At GM, he says, transmission and final-drive gears help determine a truck's gross combination weight rating, the maximum weight for a fully loaded truck and trailer together.
Frame structure is another important attribute, explains Krouse. The truck should be built upon a full frame, he advises, with a trailer-hitch platform in the back that is structured to manage trailering loads.
"For a trailer weight equal to or greater than tow-vehicle weight, trailering operation must be a primary consideration for the owner," said Krouse. "It is important that the tow vehicle always remain in control of the combination, and when trailer weight exceeds tow-vehicle weight, the opportunities for things to go wrong -- especially from a dynamics standpoint, such as handling or braking -- greatly increase.” For full-size trucks, that begins with trailer weights above about 5,000 pounds, he says.
With heavyweight trailers especially, experts agree that rear-drive trucks generally pull more. "The effectiveness of rear-wheel drive versus a four-by-four depends on a lot of factors, like the trailer configuration, terrain and the weight being towed," said International's Satlak. "In general, with two comparable vehicles, a rear-wheel drive would have more towing capacity, because a rear-wheel drive would weigh less." Thus it has more power in reserve for pulling.
What's more, a rear-drive truck can handle better when towing, notes Krouse. That's because the tongue connecting the trailer to the truck adds weight to the back of the truck. "Since trailer tongue weight loads the rear axle, there are some advantages in handling, because the traction is supplied by the wheels closest to the connection point," he explained.
Harry Rawlins, a Ford Super Duty pickup engineer, cautions people who plan to pull loads to think ahead. “Most customers pick a truck that they want first, then later use it for towing,” he said. But if their trailering needs outgrow the truck, "they need to upgrade," he warned.
"Also, trailer ratings are usually based on the maximum capability of the truck," Rawlins explained. "Once customers start adding all the upgrades (stereo, leather seats, power everything, etc.), the weight of the truck adds up quickly, and that subtracts from the weight of the trailer."
"Customers are demanding trucks be comfortable when towing and when unloaded, so manufacturers are stepping up and refining the trucks to meet customers' needs," said Rawlins. "But basically, if you buy a truck that can haul heavy loads, and then never tow with it, you have a truck that is overbuilt for your needs. If you pick a truck specifically for towing, you will have a more robust truck that will hold its resale value better."